“Refreshing” Ethics in the Fire Service

By Peter M. Bryan

It seems as though a very small minority of career and volunteer firefighters has forgotten-or maybe never learned-how important it is for members of the fire service to always act as professionals and with integrity and the link between behavior and public trust, as Editor in Chief Bobby Halton reminds us in “The Heroic Dream” (Editor’s Opinion, August 2015). As I was rereading his editorial, I was struck by the following quote from Bertrand Russell: “The performance of public duty is not the whole of what makes a good life; there is also the pursuit of private excellence.”

Halton then explained: “Both are to be found in the fire service. Our duty is honorable, respected, and critical, but equally important are the character and excellence of our members. The most admired leadership of the fire service has always sought after and encouraged private excellence-not just to protect the reputation of our hallowed industry but to advance our society and our culture.”

Negative Image

However, the news headlines from the various daily fire service news agencies certainly portray another image of the fire service, one that is highly unprofessional. Granted, these stories involve one percent of the fire service, that minority that challenges the honor of our profession. It causes one to ask if perhaps the fire service is doing enough training in ethics in our recruitment/hiring, academy, and in-service programs.

Far too often, we see articles about a fire service employee who has been arrested, on trial, convicted, or acquitted of some illegal or immoral act. These stories, which the citizens of our communities see in their daily media outlets, create a very negative picture of our service.

Some of the actions reported in these news stories include the following: arson; cheating on promotional exams; cruelty to animals; drug use and possession; prescription thefts; driving under the influence and public intoxication; elder and child abuse; embezzlement, fraud, theft of funds, and shoplifting; falsified reports; hazing activities causing public trust issues; murder, shooting, and homicide; pornography in the stations; sex on duty; rape, sexual battery, and indecent exposure; and solicitation of a minor, child pornography, and child sex charges.

These charges are real. They are not made-up examples. The seriousness of these charges makes it hard to believe that they are allegations directed at members of our profession. I suggest we keep track of such issues for three to six months to see the picture of our profession this minority of fire service members is projecting.

Some Effects of Criminal Acts

In one state, a former chief officer who was named the director of fire technology at a college was charged with and sentenced for embezzling nearly $1 million from students. In that same state, a chief officer was convicted of second-degree murder in the killing of his significant other.

Will these criminal actions or any of those on the above list have a significant effect on obtaining recruits? Probably not. Will they affect promotional testing to any degree? Probably not. Will they affect performance evaluations for the other 99 percent of employees? Again, probably not. However, they will probably affect important employee interpersonal relationships in some agencies and certainly affect the relationship and trust between the fire service and the public.

In addition, when an agency is faced with dealing with and responding to these occurrences, generally the agency and its administration and labor leaders will spend countless hours and legal funds to mitigate and resolve the issues. This diverts resources, personnel, and funding from the planned and day-to-day operations. If the media never report on the issues, there may be limited public knowledge, but if the elected officials are briefed on the occurrences, there is an opportunity and chance of their talking to their friends and constituents, especially elected officials who do not have good relationships with their public safety personnel. At the least, any fallout created by these situations may affect the outcome the next time the fire department needs the officials’ approval for a purchase or some other matter.

Protecting Against Negative Behavior

Let’s consider some ways that the fire service could tackle these issues and minimize any damage to its reputation and image. Ethics, rules and regulations, policies/standard operating procedures (SOPs), and core values should be made part of the recruitment standards, academy and college training, in-service training, performance evaluations, and promotional testing. This would help to ensure that the importance of honor, morals, and ethics is not lost in the day-to-day business of the fire service. As demands on the fire service continue to increase and members continue to work with fewer employees, our time and focus sometimes cause us to reduce efforts to ensure that our profession remains honorable and has maintaining a good public image as a priority.

Some plausible courses of action include the following:

  • Initiate a discussion of the agency’s ethics. What is important in its culture? It could be part of an in-station “talk” in the kitchen, around the dining table, in the day room, after responses, during routine station activities, during workouts, and so on. This topic should also be discussed during a recruitment interview and in educational classes.
  • Core Values. How many agencies have spent time discussing, compiling, and writing core values? Core values are generally one or two words that are clearly defined within the agency and provide a definite direction for employees, paid and volunteer, about how to behave, how to conduct business, and how to interact with the public and other personnel. Some of the most prevalent core values include the following:

    ✓ Integrity. We stand undivided in promoting harmony and maintaining high ethical standards that include honesty, faith, compassion, loyalty, duty, and forgiveness. We live according to our Code of Conduct that governs our behavior both on and off the job. We will be honest, respectful, and loyal to our peers and the community. We do the right thing ethically, honestly, and with integrity-always.

    ✓ Honesty/Trust. We trust one another to prepare in such a way that puts the safety, effectiveness, and reputation of the team and the department first.

    ✓ Public First. We respect all people and care about their safety and well-being regardless of status, origin, or personal beliefs. We are dedicated to providing superior customer service. Above all else, we realize that we are here to meet the needs of the public. We treat all customers with respect, dignity, fairness, and compassion.

    ✓ Stewardship. We are vigilant in upholding the trust of the community citizens, caring for their safety, and honorably managing their public resources.

    ✓ Professionalism. We take pride in our proficiency, maturity, leadership, and accountability to our mission. We conduct ourselves at all times in a manner befitting the oath we swore to uphold. We will demonstrate our commitment to the community by providing excellence in service and always holding ourselves accountable.

    ✓ Strategic Management/Innovation. We plan for change and develop management strategies to meet the challenges of our future. We inspire our employees to take risks that improve our organization and advance our profession.

    ✓ Leadership. We value the development and application of all personnel’s leadership skills. We believe that leadership occurs at all levels of the organization and is everyone’s responsibility.

Implementing Core Value Programs

There are many more examples of core values that work every day in fire service organizations in America. We must instill in all members the importance of core values and that members are accountable for upholding the core values.

Most organizations employing core values go through a lengthy and “active discussion” process before adoption or implementation. This discussion process gives members the opportunity to examine themselves and their behavior. Core values can be made part of the performance evaluation-the behavior portion of the evaluation that covers how members treat the public and other members. Many times, the behavior portion of evaluations are limited to factors such as attitude, attendance, and ability to get along with coworkers. Core values will serve the fire service better than antiquated “descriptors of behavior.”

Policies/SOPs

The “administrative” segment of the fire service generally develops and adopts policies, usually in concert with labor-management. They generally do not require governance/board/council approval and are easier to implement than rules. “Policies” generally have a lower legal authority than “rules,” which are generally adopted. Most policies are operational: how we do, what we do, safety, uniformity, for example; they can also address “behavioral performance.” Policies are often reviewed on a regular basis as part of training and probation and thus provide reinforcement of behavioral performance. Policies can be referenced during performance evaluations to reaffirm employees’ positive and appropriate behavior and also referenced for counseling and greater forms of discipline (they may carry varied levels of “strength” based on the agency).

Rules and Regulations

Rules generally confer a higher level of legality and can be an appropriate place for behavioral performance. The governing board usually approves the rules. They may not be referenced much for employees with positive performance but are certainly referenced for “below standard” and inappropriate performance in operations and behavior. Rules set the legal standard for employee performance.

Rules may cover areas such as hazing, which is not permitted; nor are similar practices intended to tease or harass any employee or to build the esprit de corps. Employees should conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times while representing the agency, on duty and off duty, according to the agency’s core values. Employees may be placed on nonpaid leave until a felony arrest is resolved after an agency administrative hearing. Personnel convicted of a felony criminal offense or a felony offense that is plea bargained down from a felony should be subject to termination.

Preemployment Interviews

Could hiring interviews include situational questions about values and ethics? Consider using situational questions to seek an understanding of the candidate’s experience and decision making in the area of values and ethics. Situational questions that begin with “describe” force the candidate to provide details and generally stimulate discussions.

Some examples of what to ask your candidates to describe follow:

  • Personal work values.
  • What ethics mean to you.
  • An experience you have had where your values were challenged or questioned and you had to make a decision.
  • An experience where you observed a coworker making a decision contrary to your values, the decision you would have made, and why.
  • What “integrity” means to you.

PETER M. BRYAN is a retired chief and a public safety consultant. He has served 38 years in public safety, 28 of them in public administration in chief and chief officer positions. He is a California-certified fire chief and chief officer. He has instructed in California State University and Cogswell undergraduate programs and California community colleges. He is a member of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers and International Association of Fire Chiefs, a fire protection and human resources consultant, and an ESCI associate.

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